Harvard study reveals ancient Mesoamerican knowledge of Earth’s magnetism – Harvard Gazette



“What happened here is that these rocks were struck by lightning between when they formed several thousand years ago and when they were carved,” Fu said. . “Because lightning is an electric current, it produces very strong magnetic fields, several orders of magnitude stronger than normal… and we believe that the ancient Mesoamerican peoples were able to detect these anomalies. “

It is not known exactly how they detected the anomalies, but previous research had found that the Mesoamericans may have used magnetites – naturally magnetized rocks – for a variety of purposes.

“In one case, in 1975, people discovered a bar rich in hematite,” Fu said. “Its purpose was unknown, and it was broken, but it was clearly very carefully crafted.

“If you were to tie it on a string or float it on a piece of wood, it could actually serve as a compass needle,” he added. “If the creators of these sculptures had access to a tool like this, it is one way of detecting them. “

And although the study suggests that ancient Mesoamerican peoples knew about magnetism and how to detect it, it leaves unanswered the question of why the figures were sculpted to showcase their magnetism.

“The short answer is we don’t have a good idea of ​​exactly why they did this,” Fu said. “There are some pretty intriguing hypotheses… which involve asking why we think people made these sculptures.

“The most successful idea is probably that they could represent a representation of the ancestors of the ruling elites,” he continued. “The idea is this: if you claim power, the sculptures of your ancestors with strong magnetic anomalies might look very impressive to your subjects. The word people use in literature is that there is a performative aspect to these sculptures, so when the sculptures deflected a magnetized stone, it would appear that there was something alive with it, or a supernatural aspect. .

Ultimately, Fu said, the study offers key evidence that an understanding of magnetism existed in the Americas much earlier than expected.


Jenny Schloss and Matthew Turner.

“In the Old World, there was some documentation of magnetism in the Greek world in the 6th century BC, and the first usable compass was not found until centuries later in China,” he said. . “For me, what’s really interesting is that it’s a completely independent discovery. There is a perception that the Old World is the advanced world and transferred all this knowledge to the New, but we realize that they knew a lot, and I think that is more proof for that.

This research was funded by NASA.



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